NJ: Restaurants

Joyce Chinese: River Edge, NJ, the same as it used to be: excellent

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From the various rumblings on the web claiming how Joyce Chinese, the barely 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ, "isn't as good as it used to be," you'd think they changed the menu and dumbed down the food to appeal to bland American tastes. From my admittedly unscientific analysis, I conclude that that's all a bunch of cahcah (cahcah means crap). The restaurant continues to serve mind- and tongue-numbingly good Sichuan food.

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Novo Mediterranean: Ridgewood, NJ [CLOSED]

Update (2017/7): Novo had been sold and closed. A bit loss for Ridgewood's dining scene.

North Jersey has no shortage of restaurants focusing on what might be considered "Mediterranean cuisine." Ridgewood alone boasts several, ranging from good (Lisa's Mediterranean and Mediterraneo), to cookie-cutter (casually glances at It's Greek To Me). So when I saw another restaurant billing itself as "Mediterranean" was opening on Chestnut Street, I wasn't overcome with anticipation. In fact, I was only vaguely interested in the prospect. I'm here to tell you that I was a moron.

After my first meal at Novo Mediterranean, I proclaimed it "excellent," "one of the most exciting new restaurants in the area," and noted that it "has potential to become a favorite." 

After the next meal I upped the ante, stating "Chef Kahlon is a stone cold killer," and "serious effing business here."  It took me a while, but I am no longer (as much of) a moron. Novo is, indeed, irrefutably, one of the most exciting new restaurants to hit North Jersey in a long time. After three meals it is, without a doubt, a favorite. I cannot imagine ever tiring of Chef Kahlon's cooking--although his dashing good-looks are starting to grate on me.

I should talk about the food.

Novo bread

The first thing that hit our table was a loaf of house-made bread. A steaming log of olive oil coated, airy bread, sprinkled with sea salt. The bread alone is reason to return. I can't imagine how good a sandwich made with this stuff would be. Throw some ham in there and call it a day. If at the moment that bread hits the table you don't realize that you're in the hands of an excellent chef, you'll only have consider the punch of flavor packed into house-made za'atar to be convinced. I couldn't figure out what was in it, and I don't care; some things are too good to ponder. 

I'm bloviating enough as it is, and I know you people have a very short attention span, so I'll just move on to some photos and brief comments.

Novo salad

This salad was popping-bright, with crunchy, fresh vegetables, appropriately dressed, and adorned with fried chickpeas and shaved cheese. This dish may very well encapsulate Chef Kahlon's approach to cooking. Lots of exciting acid, herbs, fresh ingredients, and textural contrast. He cooks like I like to eat.

Novo ravioli 2

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Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ: opening in Paramus

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Update: it's open.

It seems like forever ago that the Korean restaurant on Paramus Road, in Paramus, closed. I forget the name, but it was largely unexceptional, and a bit of a dump.

It didn't take too long for work to begin on the empty building, and that work has been going on for quite some time. Over a year I'd say. They gutted the place, and I'm guessing invested in everything from a new roof to a new kitchen. All along yielding no hint as to what type of restaurant might be moving in.

I kind of thought it would be an upscale Greek fish restaurant, what with that kind of money being poured into the structure (not to mention the liquor license). I thought wrong.

Indeed there's now a new sign on the building announcing Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ. Korean wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for this space, but it's certainly a good thing overall. Anything but an Italian-American restaurant, quite frankly, would be fine with me. Another bullet dodged.

While the idea of a Korean restaurant with a liquor license doesn't really excite me (I know of few Korean restaurants with interesting beer lists or cocktail programs), I did see a bunch of new grill hoods being placed over each of the tables. So they've got that going for them. 

I'm looking forward to taking my first slab of short rib and throwing it on the flame, with an OB Lager I assume.


A quick peek inside Fish Ridgewood: Ridgewood, NJ

Fish Ridgewood, which is bound to open some point this year in the old Bank of America building, has been very open to sharing pictures of the progress on their Facebook page. But that didn't stop me from poking my nosy face in there to take a few pics.

As expected, their goal of opening "mid-May" wasn't realistic, or met. But I'll hold tight, all the while hoping that the place will be exceptional. I have a really good feeling about it. At the very least it should look stunning.

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Wolfgang's Steakhouse: Somerville, NJ

Wolfgangs steak for two

A sunny day and a restaurant filled with windows is the ideal scenario to snap a few pics of food. Nothing beats all of that natural light for sharp, brilliant, clear photos.

Unfortunately for me and you, my cohorts picked the darkest table in the place for our lunch. It was literally the only table in the restaurant without a light fixture over it. I know this because I'm obsessed with such things, and checked. And so, the photos here suck even more than usual. But I will soldier on, because this is important business here.

By now we all know the story of Wolfgang's. Wolfgang was "head waiter" at Peter Luger for years, opened up his own place on Park Ave South in Manhattan, essentially with the same exact menu as Luger, went on to open another restaurant in Tribeca, and then I blinked and he's got places all over the globe. Including, curiously to moi, Somerville, NJ. He was so darned busy opening restaurants that he forgot to grab the .com domain. .net is so silly.

We ordered a chiefly typical meal here: bacon, oysters, steak for two, creamed spinach, German potatoes.

Wolfgangs bacon

The bacon is as good as it is at any of the Luger clones. Here's the thing about that bacon: it's just bacon. It's hardly an exceptional product. It is from the belly of the hog. It's not "Canadian bacon" (an actual thing), regardless of what the menu says or how often clueless food writers perpetuate that ridiculous falsehood. It's bacon. It's good because it's salty and smoky and fatty. And I have no problem with that reality.

You'll not find an exciting selection of oysters at Wolfgang's. The menu says "oysters." In the NYC area, that typically means Blue Point (Blue Point must produce an awful lot of oysters, considering how many menus they turn up on). Of course, if you mention oysters to your server, they'll likely kick into up-sell mode. "We can make a nice seafood tower for you,"  to which I typically respond "would you please just screw the fuck off? Thanks."

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Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern: Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

Burger hohokus inn

Ho-Ho-Kus Inn continues to amaze me. In a "why did I return" way. A recent visit (to the "tavern," not the formal dining room) proved baffling and frustrating on too many levels.

Let's start with a cocktail.

The cocktail list consists of maybe four or five drinks. Hopefully you're not too concerned with money, because there are no prices. You'll just have to guess. We ordered something billed as a Tequila Old Fashioned. Ostensibly, this would be an Old Fashioned made with tequila instead of whiskey. Good in theory I suppose.

An Old Fashioned, to my mind, is simply whiskey, sugar, and bitters. Perhaps a garnish of fruit. Yet in this version, there's lime juice.  When I saw "lime juice" in the list of ingredients, I knew I had to ask if it was fresh lime juice. The friendly bartender said that she could put fresh lime in the drink if I wanted. Now I was really curious. "What would you put in it if I didn't ask?" She showed me this plastic bottle of neon green lime juice cordial from the rail. Good grief, why does a place of the level of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn even have that stuff, much less use it in one of their featured cocktails. Why? Because it's amateur hour here. Twenty-four-seven.

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Jockey Hollow: Chris Cannon's mansion restaurant in Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow exterior

People had me convinced that I was supposed to know who Chris Cannon is. I had no idea. I read an article about this NYC restaurateur in the New York Times some months back, but didn't commit the information to memory. By the time I got around to sitting at one of the three bars at Jockey Hollow, I had forgotten that Cannon was a partner at L'Impero--one of my favorite NYC restaurants back in the day. Frankly, who cares. The restaurant is either good, or not good. While I can't judge a restaurant on one lunch visit (and not even in the dining room), I got the feeling that they're trying really hard at Jockey Hollow, are capable of producing some fine food, but have room for improvement.

How do you get in this place?

I don't know if it was the snow and the cold and the lack of visible signage, but the whole shebang looked desolate and closed when I pulled up. I knew there was a parking garage in the back of the mansion, so I figured that was a good a place to start as any. From the garage a quick elevator ride took me right to the Vail Bar, where I was greeted by a friendly bartender and a surprisingly bright and cheery space. My fear of dark woods and a clubby, stuffy bar melted away.

The Jockey Hollow complex has three bars. The front of the mansion, which is where the main entrance is, houses a dining area and the Oyster Bar--a sleek, modern space with a long bar displaying lots of wine (and oysters). The Vail Bar, just behind the Oyster Bar toward the back of the mansion, is a bit more casual, a bit more prohibition-era, with a long bar displaying lots of booze. I like looking at booze almost as much as I like drinking it, so I advised my girlfriend to meet me there. (The third bar, in the basement, is the Rathskeller, a space for private parties, which I'm told is also open to the public on Friday and Saturdays.)

Jockey hollow vail bar

Refreshingly, menus are presented on iPads. This means that everything you need to know is right in your hands. No dicking around asking for the cocktail list. No having the bartender recite the beer list (if I never have to sit through "Bud, Bud Light, Yuengling, Sam's Summer..." again in my life I'll be grateful). All of the information. In your hand. What a concept. Everything, with the exception of the quite wide and deep wine list. The wine list is printed and separate. The wines-by-the-glass, I would argue, should be on the iPad as well. Maybe they'll figure that out at some point.

While we're on wines-by-the-glass, I will note that the selection is long and varied. So much more than your too-standard three flavors of New World Chardonnay that most restaurants seem to implement (if I never hear the words "I'll have a Chardonnay" again in my life I'll be grateful).

The menu is broken down into sections, as you might expect, including crudo, raw bar, appetizers, entrees, salumi/cheese, and a prix fixe. Lots to choose from here, and more than a few things read really well.  We landed on some crudo and entrees.

But first, a cocktail...

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Bogie's Hoagies in Hawthorne, NJ: the best sub shop for miles

Boagies hoagies

Bogie's Hoagies has been quietly sitting in a nondescript strip of stores on Lafayette Ave in Hawthorne for some years now. I've driven past the place countless times, never thinking the sub shop behind the door could be anything other than mediocre. I have recently come to learn that this couldn't be further from the reality. I sure do love being wrong.

Bogie's Hoagies, to break it down for you, is simply the best sub shop for miles, and certainly one of the best sub shops that I've ever visited. There's so much that they are doing right that it's a bit mind-boggling. 

The place is essentially a sandwich shop, but it's run like a restaurant. The owner, who has owned and run full-service restaurants in the past, has been present every time I visit. He wears crisp, clean Chef's whites, and seems to be very much engaged in the operation.

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Best dishes: of 2014. Some were even in New Jersey.

Everyone loves a list. Especially when it contains pictures and brief, vague descriptions of food that someone else ate over the course of a year. Someone you don't even know. I mean come on. That's about as bad as suffering through a slide show of a coworker's vacation. But that won't stop me.

This is a list of the most memorable and exceptional dishes that my body processed into p**p during 2014.



Ramen
Ramen Sora
Las Vegas, NV

Ramen sora spicy

I have to think this was my first “real” ramen experience. I guess I've had ramen in the past, but never gave it the serious consideration that it deserves. Ramen Sora changed my opinion on ramen, and got me thinking about it, a lot. Ramen just may be the perfect dish. Those gyoza were no slouches either.


Spaghetti with fennel pollen sausage and Calabrian chiles

Local Seasonal Kitchen
Ramsey, NJ

Spaghetti

I've been a big fan of Chef Steve Santoro since the late 90s, when he was producing fantastic and exciting food at the long-gone Dish in Passaic, NJ. He left Dish, and disappeared from New Jersey, for a good amount of time. I figured he'd never return. Recently, he did return to open the awkwardly-named Local Seasonal Kitchen. And once again he's producing fantastic and exciting food. At first bite I knew this dish would be on some sort of “best” list. And whaddayaknow, I was right. Clean clean flavors of spice, meat, and heat. Awwwww, yeah.


Cheeseburger
The Black Pig
Cleveland, OH

Black pig burger

I'm still thinking about this burger. It remains one of the best burgers that I've had. Anywhere. DB Bistro Moderne, The Spotted Pig, Blue Smoke, Minetta Tavern, J.G. Melon. All of them take a backseat to this burger. Cooked to a juicy medium rare, an appropriate and delicious bun, house-made pickles, great melted cheese. The execution was flawless, and the burger simply outstanding. I hate this picture because it mocks me. It sits there, and mocks me, as I cannot eat it right now.
 

Chilean Seabass
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

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Everything about this dish screams 1990s. The fish itself, the potato wrapped shrimp, the vaguely Asian preparation. But maybe the 90s weren't so bad after all? That potato wrapped shrimp, which I assumed would be a throw-away garnish, was excellent in its own right. Maybe nostalgia plays into it, but this dish is really fun. And visually appealing. Chef Ciszak is doing some very good work at Chakra. You and I should be going there more often than we do.


Ox tongue and tripe
Joyce Chinese Cuisine
River Edge, NJ

Tongue and tripe

A newcomer to the North Jersey Sichuan scene in 2014, and Joyce is bringing the goods. Their version of ox tongue and tripe is a good a version as I've had anywhere, with the added bonus of being slightly better for some reason I cannot explain. A great restaurant overall.   


Fat Gangnam Boy Hero
Kimchi Smoke BBQ
NJ-based Southern and Korean BBQ vendor

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That Kimchi fella is apparently known for his brisket, but don't let this sandwich slip through your paws. Bulgogi, pickled vegetables, scallions, processed American cheese, BBQ sauce, on a perfect hero roll. This thing is silly-good. Next time, I'll make sure a get a cold beer from neighboring vendor, which would just go so very, very perfectly.


Fish with carrots
Le Relais Des Trois Mas
Collioure, France

Fish at hotel

We had fun listening to the server describe this multi-component dish for 10 minutes, each of which had carrots incorporated some how some way. “Blah blah wis a puree of carrots, blah blah scented wis, ehhh, carrots, the feesh is blah blah wis carrots, a small glass of juice, made wis, ehhhh, carrots.” He wrapped up his explanation in his best possible English, sounding exhausted from saying “carrots” so many times, with “it's just a lot of carrots.” It's a good thing we like carrots. And sichuan peppercorn, which, to our surprise, made its way into one of the components.

The dish was a work of art. The view, sitting at Le Relais Des Trois Mas, overlooking the bay at Collioure, topless sunbathers and all, was glorious. This restaurant was very, very good. And every one of those carrots was perfect. I should also note that the hotel is just lovely as well.


Cassoulet (and ravioli)
Auberge du Vigneron
Cucugnan, France

Cassoulet Auberge du Vigneron ravioli

If you find yourself tooling around the Pyrenees, exploring ancient Cathar castles, and why wouldn't you, you'd do well to stop in the small commune of Cucugnan, nestled in the shadow of Chateau de Queribus. There didn't seem to be a whole lot going on in this tiny, tiny place, but Auberge du Vigneron is well worth a stop. Or even a detour. Especially if treacherous mountain roads lacking safety rails are your thing.

It seems unfair to include two dishes from a single restaurant, especially when I couldn't figure out what made one of them so good, but I will anyway.

Not sure what the sauce on the ravioli was, but it was ethereal. Each of those ravioli was filled with a different meat product, including foie gras IIRC.

As for the cassoulet, well, what can I tell you. It was probably in the top 5 dishes of the year. Filled with various sausages and duck confit, this dish could have, and may have, warmed the stomachs of a Cathar slaughtering army. Hints of genocide never tasted so good.


Paella
Merendero de la Mari
Barcelona, Spain

Paella

It wasn't the only paella we ate in Catalonia, but it was first, and it confirmed my suspicions that what passes for paella in my part of the word is simply absolute crap. As I said here, “Every bite revealed a little piece of tender seafood or vegetable. Stuff I didn't recognize. I'm having a hard time thinking about this dish at this moment, because it was so outstanding, and I'm so hungry right now, and I know it will be some time until I have anything remotely as good as this. I don't know what else to say other than it was a revelation.”

 


Seppia
Gelonch
Barcelona, Spain

Speia

Gelonch wasn't the only place where we had seppia that was sliced into pasta-like ribbons during a trip to Barcelona, but it was my favorite. Linguini's got nothing on seppia. If anyone knows where to get a seppia ribbon-maker, or seppia for that matter, do let me know.


Slow roasted salmon
Cucina
Woodstock, NY

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I rarely order salmon, because typical Atlantic salmon is largely unexceptional. Wild Pacific salmon in season, of course, is an entirely different beast, and should be ordered whenever it's available. The slow-roasted salmon with corn pudding at Woodstock's Cucina, however, made me rethink everything I thought I knew.


Scallops
Escape Montclair
Montclair, NJ

Escape scallops

Chef Bryan Gregg has continued to impress the hell out of me in 2014. His commitment to seasonal, pristine ingredients squares nicely with the way I like to eat. One brunch at Escape included three scallops over corn. I believe this dish captured the essence of Escape Montclair. Simple, pure, perfect. A proper brunch, indeed.


Cauliflower ravioli
The Cookery
Dobb's Ferry, NY

The Cookery cauliflower ravioli

The Cookery has really impressed me with some dishes, while others have landed a bit flat. The cauliflower ravioli was one that impressed. Brown butter, of course.

 


Lion's Head Meatballs
Fu Restaurant
Fairfield, NJ

Lions head meatballs

A new Shanghainese restaurant in New Jersey, brought to you by the folks who run the excellent Chengdu 23 in Wayne. Maybe it was due to the fact taht I hadn't had this dish in close to 6 years, but diving into the Lion's Head meatballs were like nuzzling into the soft bosom of an old lover. Or something like that.


Cocktails
Stockade Tavern
Kingston, NY

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Stockade Tavern is a world-class cocktail bar run by a super nice husband and wife team. Every cocktail I had during various visits was interesting, mostly new-to-me, and eye-opening. There's a lot of craftsmanship here. No messing about. They've got ingredients that I've not so much as heard of, which is not easy to pull off. This is a great experience, and not to be missed. I cannot envision a time when I'll be near Kingston and not make time to spend an hour or two at Stockade Tavern.


Cocktails
Park West Tavern
Ridgewood, NJ

Andrew lasers
80s cheesy laser treatment courtesy of Duong L.


Andrew at Park West Tavern continues to grow and push the envelope with his cocktails. I rarely order anything specific here, and given my status as a semi-regular irregular, he generally has time to surprise me.  Just recently I had a new concoction. My comment after the first few sips was the somewhat absurd “this tastes like Christmas.” "That's what I was going for," he replied. Impressive.


Anchovies
Casa Leon
Collioure, France

Casa leon collioure anchovies

Collioure is known for anchovies. It has been argued that the world's best anchovies come from the waters here. Who am I to argue? I didn't even think I liked anchovies until eating them during almost every meal during a visit to this colorful, beautiful coastal town in the south of France. Before I left, I was a convert. Anchovies are magical.

Casa Leon is a lovely little restaurant serving pristine seafood, local wine, and, thankfully, anchovies. This plate of anchovies stood out, and went quite well with the bottle of Collioure rosé. Seek out Collioure AOC wines. You may be quite pleased.


Clams
Los Toreros
Barcelona, Spain

Los Toreros clams

Clams aren't generally my thing, but the big bowl of sweet, tender, briny clams at Los Tereros in Barcelona filled me with joy, and reinforced my understanding of simple Catalan cooking. Los Toreros is a quaint, not-very-touristy Barcelona gem.


Northern Style larb
Lotus of Siam
Las Vegas, NV

Lotus of siam northern larb
This horrible photo hurts my eyes. Sorry.


I haven't missed an opporunity to visit Lotus of Siam since my first visit in 2002 or so. When we returned this year, we were surprised to see the place has more than doubled in size. And it is more popular than ever. So much for a little hidden secret.

The selection of German wines remains impressive (and those wines go perfectly with the spicy Thai food), and the Northern-style larb remains delicious. And powerful. This dish is much different than the typical larb you'll find on most Thai menus. It's a deep, dark, rich, masculine affair, probably made with some liver and blood, and doesn't include the acidic bit that its cousin does. And boy oh boy, is it spicy. If you go to Lotus of Siam, consider their separate Northern-style menu, which is filled with rare and exciting treats.


House-cured pork with leeks
Lan Sheng
Wallington, NJ

Lan sheng smoked pork

A version of this dish can be found at most Sichuan restaurants, but I recall really, really enjoying the dish at Lan Sheng. Slightly smoky, a bit salty, pure and porky. Lan Sheng's liquor license will likely keep me from ever returning, but if I do, I'll order this dish again.


Fried chicken
Peck Peck Chicken
Teaneck, NJ

Peck peck chicken1_edited-1

2014 marked the start of a more serious exploration of Korean food at the t:e organization. While one might foolishly dismiss fried chicken wings as being nothing more than a snack, Korean fried chicken is certainly one of Korea's greatest gifts to our collective food culture. Move over, southern states.



Crab cake
Chakra
Paramus, NJ

Chakra crabcake

Two dishes on this list from Chakra, a restaurant to which I really haven't given much consideration over the years? I'm more surprised than you. There's not denying the crab cake at Chakra is the tops.  The dish is perfect, right down to the lightly dressed snow pea shoots. There's a bit too much vodka on their cocktail menu, though.



Pasta with clams
Confetti
Piermont, NY

Confetti clams linguini

It's not easy finding a decent plate of pasta with clams in the North Jersey area. It's really not. All of those Italian-American restaurants really don't do a very good job.  Most versions suffer from any number of flaws. But not the dish at Confetti. It should be the standard to which all other restaurants aspire. Beautifully and functionally plated, as well.



House-made sausage
Mill House Brewing Company
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mill house sausage

As I've noted, several times, Mill House Brewing Company has really impressed me. Elevated pub grub, great cocktails, excellent staff, a beautiful room. Every town needs a Mill House Brewing Company.  The house-made sausage made an appearance on my plate on our most recent visit. Juicy, flavorful, cooked just north of that's-too-raw, and a great version of bangers and mash.



Breakfast taco
Destino II Cart Tacos at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market
Rhinebeck, NY

Destino taco

On a whim and just because, I ordered a breakfast taco from Destino II during a quick run-through of the Rhinebeck farmers' market. And I'm glad I did. Was this a perfect breakfast taco? I don't have much experience with breakfast tacos, but I'd venture to say “yes, this was a perfect breakfast taco.” Fluffy eggs, ground chorizo, fresh corn tortillas, hot sauce, salsa. What's not to LOVE.

 

So there you have it. I'm sorry I put you through that. I hope this helps someone, somewhere, at some point.


tommy:eats is a freelance food writer, photographer and curmudgeon, based in North Jersey. When not making lists he can usually be found putting together slide shows of his trips.



Dim Sum Villa: Proper dim sum in New Providence, NJ

Dim sum villa dim sum

File under: where the heck is New Providence, NJ?

I certainly had no idea. Never heard of it, as far as I can remember. I know the area, but not this New Providence. Luckily I have a map, so I was able to locate this lovely little hamlet and the fabulous dim sum restaurant tucked into its bosom. Dim Sum Villa is the name of the place, and they've got some proper dim sum.

Dim sum villa cart

They've got cart service at Dim Sum Villa. This neither excites me nor bothers me. I really don't care if a restaurant has carts. But it's nice to see the selections up close and in person and do the pointing routine.

Here's a brief rundown of a recent dim sum lunch:

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